What Is a Chromebook?

Discover all you can do with a Chrome laptop

A Chromebook is a bare-bones, cloud-based laptop running the Linux-based Chrome OS operating system.

If you think about how most people use a laptop, those activities usually involve mostly web browsing, email, documents and spreadsheets, and saving files. So what is a Chromebook good for? A Chromebook can accomplish all of these needs, but via a cloud-based approach.

The Chrome OS Operating System

The Linux-based Chrome OS was designed to be the fastest operating system available, and include a fast booting BIOS as well. A Chromebook will typically turn on in just a few seconds, versus a laptop or computer that can take from 60 seconds to several minutes.

The reason it's so fast is because there are no local applications it needs to launch every time the Chromebook starts. Instead, everything is done through a Chrome browser, or through Chrome-based web apps that look and appear like a regular application.

The hardware itself is also built using solid state hard drives, which transfer data much faster than traditional drives.

The Chrome OS user interface gives the appearance of a Windows 10 desktop, even though the operating system is very different than Windows.

Screenshot of a Chromebook desktop

The desktop you can expect when you use a Chromebook includes:

  • A circle icon in the lower left corner that many users would consider the "start menu." This menu opens a window that displays all installed Chrome apps.
  • A bar of pinned apps at the bottom of the taskbar.
  • A status bar in the lower right corner where you can access features like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, volume, user accounts, and settings.

Chrome Laptop Hardware

Before you go out and buy a Chromebook, it's important to understand the difference in hardware so you know what you can do with a Chromebook and what you can't:

  • Keyboard: Most have full-sized keyboards, but typically there's no numeric keypad on the right. The CAPS LOCK key is replaced with a search key. Function keys are replaced with various Chromebook specific function keys. However, you can still use CAPS and function keys using Chromebook keyboard shortcuts.
  • USB Devices: Chrome OS supports most standard USB devices like external mice, keyboards, and flash drives. Advanced or unique hardware that requires the installation of device drivers (like webcams or display adapters) will not work.
  • Connectivity: Chromebooks are meant to be mobile devices, so Chrome OS was built to support Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. They typically do not come with an ethernet port.
  • Storage: Chromebooks are intended to be used on the cloud, which means you should store most of your files on Google Drive or other cloud storage services. However, Chromebooks do have limited local storage, usually reserved for file downloads and screenshots you take on Chromebook. This is usually a 16 GB or 32 GB internal solid state drive. Most Chromebooks also come with an SD card port, so you can expand the local storage limit significantly.
  • Video Card: Most Chromebooks include an Intel UHD graphics card capable of playing any high-definition online videos, but not very good for serious online gaming purposes.

Chrome Laptop Software

You might be wondering what can a Chromebook do if you can't install software? The answer is: a lot.

The device was built with the cloud use in mind, meaning you'll need to think about everything you want to do in terms of what Google services are available to meet that need.

  • Email: You'll need to use Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Outlook Online, or any other cloud-based email service to answer and reply to emails.
  • Documents and Spreadsheets: Use Google Docs and Google Sheets, or access Office Online with your Microsoft 365 account.
  • Storing Files: With a Chromebook, it's best to store all files on cloud storage accounts like Google Drive, OneDrive, or Dropbox. However you can store files locally or on a flash drive if you prefer.
  • Video Conferencing: Most Chrome laptops include a webcam, so you can use any online video conferencing service for video meetings.
  • Productivity and Notes: Use Google Calendar or Google Keep (both web apps are preinstalled) or your favorite online calendar and note taking services.
  • Music: Chromebooks come pre-installed with a music player app so you can play music files on your Chrome laptop, or stream music from the web.

What Is a Chromebook Good For?

Most standard laptop users will be happy with a Chromebook. It will accomplish 80 to 90 percent of what most people use their computer's for, including streaming some gaming online with Steam and other services. However, for power users who use specific macOS or Windows applications frequently, or for heavy gamers, the Chromebook will likely be insufficient for their needs.